Was That Me?

Wow, what a vicious post I wrote yesterday!  There really isn’t much wider perspective when you’re taking things out of your bag at K-Mart because your debit card has maxed out.  Ironically, this makes it easier to understand those Tea Party folks I was writing against yesterday.  Many of them are fairly newly middle class, and fairly barely middle class at that.  Owning art, driving a comfortable, well-appointed car, cancer surgery for the dog — these were probably dreams for which they and their families worked hard at miserable jobs.  Yes, it makes me angry that they don’t realize it was unions which made many of these jobs bearable and profitable — but in turn, it makes me angry that non-union folks didn’t have the same rewards for equally hard and dangerous work.

But back to Universalist history.  My alternative to rebuilding the unions is European style democratic socialism.  It is not a theoretical concept to me — by grandmother, whose parents immigrated from Germany, held that conviction (tightly concealed) as she lived out her working life in North Carolina.  But the Europeans won their universalized work safety, wages and leisure at bloody and bitter barricades.  1848 had revolts in many major European cities, put down by violent repressions.  They had been building for years, and looked back, in part, to the even bloodier French Revolution, in which much of the aristocracy was beheaded.  The idea of liberating property from the few to the masses has never been pretty.  But people fight like hell, both to keep what they have, or to get what they need.

Yesterday I wrote of Henry VIIIth and the violent, and therefore mis-named, “dissolution of the monasteries.”  I remember learning about this in junior high (private reading even then)  and trying to figure out what made his changes a Reformation.  At that time, I was operating under the benign definition of Reformation — that it expanded access to salvation for everyone.  And Henry would have said he was doing that, because the hierarchical holiness of monasteries and cathedrals  certainly did imply lesser corners of heaven for the rest of us.  Only recently have I — and many Protestant historians and theologians — come to recognize the popular support Roman Catholicism enjoyed and deserved from those structures.

Anyone who has studied Oliver Cromwell — or who thought “Off with their heads!” was an overly-grim response to monarchy — will note that the Puritan revolution was universalism at its worst.  Totalitarianism, even for the most “liberal” outcomes, is still repression.  European democratic socialism is a hard-won compromise.  France and Germany have many folks who are richer and poorer, and I’m sure not all their taxation is totally fair and transparent.  But it’s a lot better than ours, and after two world wars, as well as the Holocaust, they appreciate the need for citizens to monitor and oversee government functions.  But they also know seem to know what governments do for them.  Even the British royal family seems to know that bombs fall on the rich and the poor alike, and limousines drive on the same roads as junkers.

When Charles Darwin described evolution, he included a stage called “the survival of the fittest.” My 9th grade biology teacher minced no words: this was the moment when nasty, ugly, painful fights to the death establish long term winners and losers.

But the real survivors are not so much those who win the single fight as those who adapt to the changing habitat which is their real enemy.  Here is where I look to the folks fighting for their unions to learn from the voyage of the Beagle.  Yes, there are a few rich corporations, but most of them, ultimately, are as vulnerable as you are to the misdeeds and greed of their managers and directors.  It’s time for non-management stockholders and workers to unite against management-based stockholders and directors to set up a different vision for this country.

Ironically, for us Unitarians and Universalists, this means rediscovering some uncomfortable parts of our own past. Most of us are willing to praise the Radical Republicans of the Civil War and Reconstruction era — a strongly Unitarian contingent — as well we should.  But we need to remember how many of them, and their social and religious circles, were local business people.  Here in Burlington, they were grocers, clothing sellers, shoe-makers, with regional rather than national and international trading networks.

The twentieth century in this country was about unpacking the racial and ethnic stereotypes by which we were formerly unable to advance all parts of our population.  This century, so far, it looks like we are going to have to do the same thing for our political and economic divisions.

Time to Dissolve Some Monasteries

Two nights ago, watching an interview with a supporter of the Wisconsin budget cuts, I turned into Henry VIII.  That monarch was best known for his marital resolutions (“one died, one survived, two divorced, two beheaded”), but he had the same ruthless approach to raising public funds by punishing religious enemies.  His ransacking of Roman Catholic holy communities goes by the misleading name “dissolution of the monasteries.”  “Dissolution” sounds so gentle, almost natural — like tablets fizzing into a glass of water.  In fact, religious leaders were tortured and killed as their assets were stolen and melted down.  Moreover, much of what was stolen had been procured for personal or family use at great sacrifice by non-affluent laity who thought their most precious items would be safe in a “sanctuary.”  They were wrong.  Memorial plaques, story-telling tapestries, personal iconography of various kinds — all went off to the king, with no regard for the owners’ loyalty or disloyalty to the monarchy.   They were Catholic, that was enough.

That same spirit of mindless appropriation came over me as I watched this man — a bit older than myself — in front of an abstract painting in a clearly comfortable living room — say that yes, he had been in unions, but their time has passed.

And I went ballistic.  Postal.  My Jared Loughner moment — except not with guns.  If someone’s in a union NOW, she’s not sure of benefits.  If he was in one long ago, he’s probably still cashing checks.  Maybe it underwrites the part of his health care that Medicare doesn’t provide.  If he’s really anti-union, he needs to give them back.  (not not mention giving back his Medicare to justify lower taxes.)

But he’s not going to give back any of it, is he?

And even if this doesn’t apply to this guy, it certainly applies to many.  Pollsters have documented large numbers of former union members, as well as government check-cashers, in Tea Party ranks.  If they want to fix the deficit, all they have to do is quit taking the money.  If they want to bust the unions, give back the bennies.

But again, I’m not holding my breath on that.  So here is my modest proposal:

Unions ought to get their lawyers to go through the ranks of pensioners and compare their addresses with the proportion of Republican voters in the precinct in which the pensioner now lives.  Whatever proportion voted Republican in that precinct becomes the percentage of benefit holders who will be revoked, starting, of course, with the largest beneficiaries.  Health care, monthly check, whatever.

If these are paid out through intermediaries who were forced by the unions to do so — an auto company, a health insurer — and if that entity is still paying union benefits, perhaps they would like to join in this effort.

Bear in mind that I have a problem with unions as not being universal.  I support the things they have wanted — dignity for labor, pay that supports a family, workplace safety, weekends off, health care, etc — but I reject the fundamental principle that labor cartels can benefit everyone.  By definition, a cartel is a group that excludes others.   Yes, that puts me in Republican ranks, by some definitions.  So be it.  That will put me in with the Republican small-holders who formed the backbone of the golden era on Unitarianism (yes, that religion predates mega-universities), not to mention the hill country who-knows-what of Vermont Universalism.  Oh, yeah — they were Republicans, too.

But I have nothing in common with this current crop of mini-Marie Antoinettes.   I support a democratic socialist social contract — universal benefits, single payer, progressive taxation.   I am prepared to sacrifice both my liberal reputation and the union movement.  But that does not mean turning my back on the good that unions have done.  I want to support a transition, in which folks now pushing unions become articulators of rights and security for everyone.  I can’t help reminding us that while the Reformation wanted wider access to clergy-guaranteed salvation — namely, bishops — we come from the Radical Reformation, which said everyone has an equal right and equal power to life eternal.  I’m just trying to apply that theology to vacation pay, weekends, and health insurance.

Will it hurt, this dissolution of the monasteries which already-protected retirees have built up at home?

That’s the wrong question.  Most of us younger folks are already eyebrow deep in economic pain, if not for ourselves, then for our kids.

And do I care?

Not really.  I’ve had to sell beloved books for groceries.  Let that guy sell his painting for food, and see how soon his family gets hungry again.

Two Sides in Wisconsin

Why would a UU not be up in arms supporting the public sector union workers of Wisconsin — and by extension, the rest of the country — as they rally, demonstrate, shut down and shout out in support of collective bargaining?  Who could be against the rights of workers to band together in support of benefits like health care and pensions?

In my heart of hearts, as a former union member myself, I’m right there with them.   Those jobs were by far the best I ever had — including ministry — and if I had stuck with them through thick and thin, my coffers and my future would be much better appointed than they ever have hope of being.   My public sector job took specialized education and skill, although no sacrifice.  Wisconsin’s unions and their allies seem to be making a last stand on behalf of middle class comfort for all of us, and for that, I give them applause.

But historically, American unions have been the largest single enemy of that very dream of middle class comfort for all.  Unlike European unions, who organized to vest legal rights (for citizens) at the government level, American unions set up labor cartels.  The dream might have been the same, but the mechanism, the access, the justification were anything but universal.  Hoping to give their children and extended kin the comfort for which they had immigrated here, American unions accepted and exploited racism and sexism way beyond what my young UU years would tolerate.  Hoping to justify their selfishness, they played into anti-taxation greediness with their insistence that benefits were earned — not entitled — by workers who showed up for work.  Yes, they had great support for the disabled — but only THEIR disabled.  Whatever my Unitarian egalitarianism may have liked about their uplift of so many struggling immigrants, my Universalist philosophy completely rejects about their language, their philosophy of rights.

In a sense, we are in the same boat as Egypt right now.  Unions — and I thank them for this, I honor their martyrs for this — lifted up the dignity of jobs which are nor glamorous.  Martin Luther King, Jr, for instance, died while supporting a strike of garbage collectors, whose slogan was “I Am a Man.”  And anyone who wants the whole list need only check the archives — many dates — of Patrick Murfin’s wonderful blog, “A Heretic, A Rebel, A Thing to Flout.” There is no question that the idea of work as a cause for wealth is a step up from the inherited greediness of the Gilded Age, in which began the martyrdoms.

But it’s time to think of how we can help progress our public philosophy of worthiness again.   American employers who lobby furiously against universal, single-payer health care in this country will tell you right up front that such a policy draws their investment, for instance into Canada, where corporate earnings don’t need to keep balancing household budgets for the retired and the ill.  It is not “business” as a whole which objects to this policy, but the many businesses which now form what might be referred to as the “insurance medical complex.”  No wonder more and more doctors are going to Congress (or K Street) and pouring their souls into this battle.  No wonder the national assortments Chambers of Congress are concealing a split in their ranks on this issue — and the big bucks of the insurance medical complex” were the winners.  It’s not that they were more right — they were richer.  And anyone who doubts they are ripping us off need only look how much they are willing to invest to protect their substantial profits.

Unions lost their public support — and I hate to say this — because more and more people found themselves on the outside looking in.  It was easier to gut them than to join them, even if you were a worker.  But now those workers discover there was a baby in all that bilge-water.   The baby was the universal right of the post-born to ennoy secure, uplifting, covenant-enriched lives.  To know security that outlasts any paycheck, even a job.

Yep, I’m preaching Universalism here, pure, unmitigated entitlement given by God.  What some Unitarian — what was his name — in one of his more universalist moments, said thusly:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (whoops!), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

So yes, we need to remember that unionization, at its best, uplifted the dignity of work which is done before you shower, not after.  The folks who clean up vomit, chip out coal, set out meals, spin out fabrics, ground electric outlets.  Not always college work (and not always not college work!), but also not the kind of thing you’d want to live without.

Middle class comfort — that rapidly waning memory from the middle of the twentieth century — offered us both: government to provide what we could not do for ourselves, and unions to insist we have the right to do as much for ourselves and our families as we can.  Ironic that this latter part of their creed has resettled as justification for the greed of the international kleptocrats (including the insurance medical complex, with its exploitation of poor immigrants to do their dirtiest jobs for inadequate wages), while the former — that it is the dignity of work which justifies the benefits and wages — has been used to cut off the very disabled, aged, and dependent the unions fought so hard to protect.



Remembering Conrad Wright’s Universalism

Conrad Wright was the reason I went to Harvard Divinity School.  I may have contacted him before I went up, just to warn him that I intended to carry on his work — which is still what I try to do.  The memory of our first meeting is as clear as the teapot sitting beside me.  It was the day students traipse around chatting with faculty, to see whether there might be a match.  Richard Neibuhr, Sharon Welch, Margaret Miles — those were the stars pulling UUs into orbit in 1986.  It astounded me that in his humble Divinity School Library office, Conrad was sitting alone, reading and writing as if it were still summer.  He smiled realistically, wryly commenting that others were in greater fashion.  We talked for a good half hour.  It was a match.

Those conversations continued every Friday for most of my four years of seminary.  We had trouble intersecting, because he was an early morning riser, while I seldom ventured out before ten.  However, he gradually accustomed himself to the pushy woman who arrived every Friday to interrupt his writing.  I would ask what he was working on, and he would ask the same.  We were both working on UU history.  It wasn’t a total match: my interest lay in the broad sweeps of intellectual history and theology, liturgy, while he preferred the detailed administrative construction of organized religion.  He would tell me which dead white men — and a few women — had pursued or developed whatever I was exploring, and I would go home and read them.  The next week, I would give him my response, interweaving it into previous discussions.

In those days, my ADHD was indiagnosed and untreated — although anyone could have guessed it was happening — and Conrad would listen to some *masterful presentation* (lol) and then respond with a mild statement that I had confused 1832 and 1835, and certain intervening events made the distinction important.    Gradually, I learned to count certain centuries down a year at a time, a feat made possible by the complete inattention to almost anything outside of Greater Boston Unitarianism.

A lot of people didn’t like Conrad.  He had his views, and those were his views.  He approached history like a drill sergeant, requiring us to memorize the Cambridge Platform definition of a congregation, and explain why it wasn’t a church.  He didn’t give much appearance of laughing, and I am not sure he cracked many jokes.  Yet he attended the ordinations of all his students (read scripture at mine) and it was sitting side by side at one that I heard him crack the only real joke I can remember.    As the first speaker launched into a profuse introduction of the person being ordained, as well as embellishments on the value of the occasion, etc etc etc, Conrad leaned over and whispered, “We’re going to be here all afternoon.”   Then he settled in and smiled approvingly for several hours.

Many folks had a more fundamental conflict with Conrad, and it was one I shared: he underplayed the value of theology in our religion.   It led him to insist that Unitarianism was a uniquely North American religion, a view now recognized to be wrong.  European Unitarians and Universalists have different polities, and a stronger emphasis on Jewish Christian continuities, but they are our kinfolk all the same.  So for other aspects of our faith learnings, I spent time with the passionately theological George Huntston Williams and the casually brilliant James Luther Adams.  George and Conrad didn’t really speak, or have much respect for each other, that I could tell.  I scrupulously avoided quoting them to each other, even though I interworked both of their themes into my one.   They knew what I was doing, but didn’t participate.  On paper, it was the last golden era of Unitarian Universalism at Harvard, but in person, they had as little to do with each other as possible.  (In fairness to JLA and George, JLA had been one of George’s professors once, and the two mentioned this from time to time in a mutually respectful way.)

It probably didn’t show, but over the years, Conrad softened.  In writing his last book, he was quite proud to show me extensive research into Universalist polity and heritage.   His desk was neatly burdened with Universalist books.  Once, when we both had a question about something Universalist, for which we could find the answers in the archives, I went back to lunch; when I came back, he was already looking it up.  Now he was the eager graduate student and we Universalists were his critical readers.  He gave me a typescript to read on the subject, and  I loved how good it was.  I marveled that he could ferret out so much new stuff at such a late age; he read himself as critically as he read any of us, while still in draft.

I am not sure when I became aware that Conrad was not going to cut me down as sharply as my academic parents and grandparents tended to do.  He gave me an A- on consolidation, even though my research refuted several statements with which he was closely associated.   He looked at my footnotes, and said, “very interesting” in what might be called a “poker voice.”   I still have that paper, as well as the others I wrote for him.

There was another place where Conrad the Harvard historian softened a bit.  It began with his central commitment to congregational covenant.  When it came to congregational historians, he cautioned me, they were not paid, not often trained in formal scholarship, but they had deep love of their subjects.  He pointed out with affection that he saved every congregational history that was sent to him, no matter how humble, and he urged me to do the same.  “They don’t come up to the same standard,” he said, “but they are vital.”

There will be many tributes to Conrad, I suppose, and they will probably dwell on his covenant theology.  That is too bad, for as great as he was in his profession, to me, he rose far above that as a person.

For a picture of the person I describe, use this link:  http://www.hds.harvard.edu/faculty/em/wright.cfm

To see, and learn more about, the formal Unitarian so many remember, and who did so much for our community of faith, check Herb Vetter’s tremendous Harvard Square Library:   http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/cfs2/conrad_wright.php

Either way, both ways, as we say at King’s Chapel,

May Light Perpetual Shine Upon Him.

Council Governance

At a congregational meeting in 1987, following several years of research by their board and minister, the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont voted among three choices for governance.  Option One was Council Governance, in which the Board restricted itself to business-type matters and core structures for ministry and staff.  Option Two they called Administrative Governance — what I was taught as Committee-Led — in which each Board member liaised with one or more committees, and Board meetings were for pooling their information about these committees’ decisions — along with said business and staffing matters.  Option Three was Policy Governance.  I was taught long ago to call this Board Driven, and that title says it all.

Each form of governance had its own disadvantage.  Council Governance — which was what they chose and still have — demands tons of lay leadership, doing tons of work.  But it gives each committee a lot of power over what it wants to do.  The Board is always struggling to catch up — with committee-generated funds and programs, with leadership issues within the committees, with staffing commensurate with the committees’ energy when it’s flying.  And it’s hard to get committee leaders or reps to add a central meeting to their monthly calendar, when they’re already flat out for their interest area.

Administrative Governance has great communication, but again, the Board is always fighting rear-guard actions.  The advantage is that they know what the rear-guard actions need to be before the committee breaks down, in either mission or personnel or interpersonal dynamics.  The disadvantage is that the Board learns a ton about how committees could function better, but has no authority to share it.

Board-Driven polity, at its best, capitalizes on the learnings of a stable, well-informed Board, attracting seasoned and diverse members from throughout congregational activities.  The disadvantage might be more theological than practical.  UUs do not like to access God — which for many of us, is a verb and not a noun — through mediators or — even worse– delegates.  So the idea that we petition a Board with our idea and then wait to see how it fits their big picture totally contradicts our definition of God.  And I note that for many of us, even God is too remote and the whole idea of petitioning is complete anathema.  “Just do it!” we started saying, long before the Nike commercials, the nineteen sixties, any of that.  In fact, when Reverend William Emerson, father of Rev. Ralph Waldo, and himself a preacher of high reknown, preached at the ordination of the Society’s first minister, back in 1810, he called for a religion of practical significance.  Not words but deeds, were his motto — although he spoke with eloquence and couched his message in strong Pauline theology.

But the problem with committee and Council governance — which is all they have ever had up here — is that it breaks down at 500 members.  That’s a threshold they’ve been struggling against for more than one hundred years — not counting a few demographically-induced sloughs of despond.   During this interim ministry interval, along with issues of ministry, this repeated failure lurks in the background.

It is not my place to make their decision, but as a historian and minister, I started looking to see if Council Polity had to be abandoned to get over the five hundred threshold.  For weeks I listened desperately for an old memory which might say “no,” because I happen to be one of those radical congregational-empowerment UUs.  I grew up in Committee Governance, and I like the way it lets each committee dream big dreams and pursue them wholeheartedly.   I like a rearguard Board, because frankly, I do not like mediators.  I pray directly to God, when I so desire, and when I want to talk to Jesus instead (that Christian thing), I do so.  God can listen if He/She/It/They so desire.

Finally, the model came back to me.  Riverside Church in New York City.  2700 members, and council governance.  Yes, they have an Exec to handle the core stuff, and I presume there’s a board in there somewhere, but the leadership relates among themselves in subdivided Councils.  They have a strong Senior Minister and a strong Mission, but after that, laity and staff are all unbridled to fulfill God’s mission for their particular area of interest.  I don’t know much about them anymore, but I can see that their polity structure makes sense for lay empowerment.


Riverside, of course, centers around one of the most famous and powerful pulpits in our liberal religious community.  This leads me to suspect that the key to successful Council Governance is not so much in the polity design as in the mission.  A congregation can only do Council governance if they are pervaded and energized by the same mission and vision, from top to bottom.  If even the kids get why they are there every Sabbath, and the dying can look back and name that same work and worship as an adequate reason for their proudest thoughts, words and deeds.  Not every congregation, UU or otherwise, is able to say that about themselves: mission is often our mushy place.  And if a congregation is still working on core message, it is possible a Board-Driven structure would be their best choice.

But the second question about Council governance — and here I step beyond my relationships in Burlington — has to do with communication and support.  When you ask a lot of lay leaders, they need staff support on a highly present basis.  And if they are working in a particular area of the society’s ministry, that means specialized ministers, whose tool-kits reach the pinnacle of interfaith professionalism in that area.  No one or two people can know as much about teaching fourth grade religious education as about equipping a family for the journey with a newly-arrived crisis.  Nor can the same person add to that same impossible toolkit a similar knowledge of what the neighbors need to keep their area  just, merciful and empowering.  UUs are traditionally not willing to pay for support staff — even trained and ordained — for fear it will overestimate its leadership functions.  This is even more true at the council level — ministers of religious education, social justice, pastoral care — than at the pulpit level.  And even many of our pulpits are underfunded, especially in times as hard as these.

As the denominational Large Church folks prepare to gather next month, I wish to be sure that each of them — of us — stands at that same moment of decision, when it arrives, as greeted the Burlington UUs in 1987.  There are three kinds of governance, and each has its value in particular places and moments.  Each has its challenges and strengths.  That is why we have congregational polity — that each — ultimately little — group might know itself, and choose what it finds most supportive.